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Fighting Fire With Iron

News of forest fires generally calls to mind the courageous souls who risk their lives to fight them. As it turns out, there’s another component to the battle — heavy equipment.

Thu October 01, 2015 - West Edition
Lori Tobias

News of forest fires generally calls to mind the courageous souls who risk their lives to fight them. As it turns out, there’s another component to the battle — heavy equipment and lots of it, too.

“Without equipment, there is no way we could fight fires,” said Tracy Wrolson acting assistant district forest supervisor of the Oregon Department of Forestry. “Equipment is 100 percent essential to firefighting activity.”

And this year in the Pacific Northwest, there was plenty of that with some 40 crews of 20 people each working fires that raged throughout Washington and Oregon. The largest in Oregon was the 110,000-acre Canyon Creek Complex fire. Ignited by lightening on Aug. 12, it destroyed 43 homes and damaged more than 50 other structures in eastern Oregon.

The heavy equipment comes into play at various phases of the fires. Early on, crews will use it to contain the blaze, such as with the bulldozers used to build fire lines.

“Sometimes in conjunction with the dozers you might see hot saws, an excavator with a saw on the end,” said Christie Shaw, spokesman of the Oregon Department of Forestry. “It will have either a circular sawblade or a chainsaw bar. It will grab ahold of the tree and set it off.

Sometimes the equipment will be a feller-buncher. Typically, there are a couple different versions, but generally they pinch off the tree at the stump and grab it with tongs and carry it to the next tree and grab another tree. Sometimes it will have a sawblade at the bottom. They pile the trees in a spot for a log hauler to come and move out of the way. These are used for building fire lines.”

The same equipment is used to remove hazardous trees. The other piece of equipment frequently used is a masticator.

“It will be on a skid steer, and it has a head that just chews up the vegetation,” said Wrolson. “I call it cookie monster, it devours everything along its way.”

Crews also use heavy equipment for water handling.

“We have a multitude of different sizes and strengths of water handling engines,” Wrolson said.

“For wildland interface, there are tanks and pumps that have been built internally.”

One of those is called a skidgine.

“That’s a skidder with an engine attached to it,” Shaw said. “You have a pump and water tank on the skidder. It can go where trucks can’t get to. It’s not your typical type of equipment. Contractors and loggers have them and they are custom built. You can do a hose line right off of them.”

In addition to the heavy equipment used to contain the fires, utilities bring in equipment to restore power in places where fires have taken out the lines. Also, the Department of Transportation moves equipment in to rebuild bridges and roads.

To make it all work requires good, long-term relationships with local contractors who commit to helping before the fire season begins.

“Between the federal and state governments, we have a multitude of agreements with contractors for crews and equipment,” said Wrolson. “We call upon those contract folks to mobilize. We do have some equipment that is local throughout the stateside that is state owned that we utilize, but we just don’t have the budget to have the armada of dozers and skidders we need. We rely on the contractors and the relationships we have built over the years.”

The Canyon Creek Complex fire is under control, though Wrolson expects it will continue smoking until the first snow flies. But even at 85-percent contained, equipment and manpower on site in early September included: Two Type 1 crews, 12 Type 2 crews, four helicopters, 18 engines, six dozers, nine water tenders and three skidgines,” Shaw said.

Next, crews will begin working to repair damage caused to contain the fire.

“If humans did it to stop the fires, we’ll fix it,” said Wrolson. “If the fire did it, we don’t because it is natural.”

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